Living a Life Through Faith

Life coach Chaya Abelsky shares her thoughts on the Hasidic website on what it means to live a life inspired by faith. Excerpts:

Faith is not a relinquishing of responsibility. It is not an excuse for inaction that allows us to say, “The situation is out of my hands, G‑d will look after it.” On the contrary, it is only when we push ourselves to the limit of our own abilities that we begin to experience true faith. Faith is the confidence of knowing that having reached a point at which we can honestly say we have done all that we can, that everything else – all that is not within our own control – will look after itself.

But this confidence we experience is not faith itself, it is a result of faith. Faith is more than just a mind set. Faith is not merely something inside us, an emotion we experience like joy or satisfaction. Faith reaches out beyond us and transforms the world around us. When we approach the world with faith, it is a power that flows from a deep well within each of us. A power that flows outside ourselves and actually orchestrates the events of our world the way we need them to be.

There is a Yiddish expression that goes “Tracht gut vet zein gut” – Think good and it will be good. It is explained in our deepest mystical teachings that our thoughts can change the world. The expression “Think good and it will be good” is not just a way of saying “Hope for the best” or “Stay positive”. It is a profound teaching about the impact of our thoughts in creating and shaping our world. Faith in a positive outcome is the beginning of the solution.

Given what appears to be a hopelessly impossible situation, faith is the power to wrestle with the force of opposition that blocks what we need to accomplish. Fighting against impossible odds with our intellect alone almost inevitably makes us closed and bitter. We shut ourselves away from others in our despair. But faith is the power to remain positive and open in the face of the most stifling adversity….

Opposition is not simply something negative. It is a sign that the outcome will make a difference. The greater the forces that fight against what you are seeking to accomplish, the greater the result must be in tipping the scale of deeds in the world to the side of good. When seen through the clarity of faith, impossible odds no longer overwhelm us. They instead spur us on by revealing that what we are doing matters.

But why should it be like this? If G‑d loves us and wants the best for us, why make it so difficult? The answer reveals the meaning behind one of life’s great mysteries: why those who are good often suffer and those who are corrupt appear to prosper….

While G‑d could have created a world in which there was nothing that opposed goodness and kindness, we would have been missing out on G‑d’s greatest gift to us: the ability to find resources within ourselves greater than we previously realized were there….

This is why G‑d makes the lives of good people difficult. Because good people make a difference. And at the end of the day, it is their victory over the forces of darkness and despair that is the source of profound satisfaction.

Having gone to the point of breaking but still retaining strength, we discover that we are not as fragile as we imagined. We are ready to face tomorrow with even greater challenges that will reveal even greater strength in us.

Read the whole article here.

Christ-Symbol or Christ-Substitute?

Today my Bible study group listened to a taped sermon on Romans 8 by the estimable Tim Keller, a Presbyterian minister in NYC, who mentioned how examples of self-sacrificing love in books or movies can help us emotionally understand Christ’s gift to us. For instance, Keller suggested we could view Sidney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as a symbol of the substitutionary atonement.

This reminded me of an email discussion I had with Dr. Anthony Esolen at Mere Comments last year about whether Dickens’ novels were truly Christian. Do figures like Carton, or Florence Dombey (whose endurance of child abuse finally melts her father’s heart), point us toward the realization that we need Christ as savior, or away from the gospel and towards believing that we can be saved by human love alone?

Is the problem with the whole genre of the modern realist novel, in which God must remain an implicit presence and only human action is directly visible? Aslan can function as a Christ-symbol without misunderstanding because few people over the age of five will read the Chronicles of Narnia and literally think “I need to put my trust in a talking lion.” The risk is greater that someone will read A Tale of Two Cities and make an idol of romantic love. 

I have a very personal stake in this question because one major theme of my novel-in-progress is how we mistakenly seek transcendence through Eros rather than God. If my playboy protagonist turns his life around because of his boyfriend’s unselfish devotion, instead of because he has an explicit conversion experience, does that make it less of a Christian novel? (Those of you who are stuck on the gay content of the previous sentence, substitute “girlfriend”.) By emphasizing the insufficiency of human love, am I setting up an opposition between God and His creatures that is stricter than the Incarnation warrants? How can I depict a marriage that is mutually self-giving and fulfilling, and yet points to something beyond itself? Should I just let my characters be as nice to each other as they want, and let God figure out the rest?

Comments, please! The salvation of my imaginary best friend may depend on it.

In Memoriam: Lloyd Alexander

I was saddened to learn today that Lloyd Alexander, the renowned author of fantasy novels for young adults, had died May 17 at age 83, from cancer. A good long life, to be sure, but one can only hope that a favorite writer will be as immortal as his books!

I grew up reading and rereading his Prydain Chronicles, a five-book series set in an imaginary kingdom inspired by Welsh mythology, which deserves comparison to The Lord of the Rings. Like that famous trilogy, it takes a humble protagonist (a likeable, gawky assistant pig-keeper) on a hero’s journey to defeat the lord of death.

Alexander’s other fine works include the Westmark trilogy and The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen. The former series (Westmark, The Kestrel, and The Beggar Queen), which takes place in an invented European country with an 18th-century period feel, is a dark and morally complex tale of republican freedom fighters against a tyrant. It’s really mis-labeled as a young adult book; more like a Victor Hugo novel with a length and vocabulary that a mature teen could enjoy, but substantial enough to captivate and inspire readers of all ages. Prince Jen is a witty, profound fable about a young Chinese prince who roams his kingdom incognito to learn wisdom.

One thing I loved about Alexander’s books was his wise, sassy and competent heroines, a welcome update to the classics of sword-and-sorcery fiction. They’re the foremothers of Harry Potter’s Hermione. His novels are works of philosophy embodied in a humorous and exciting tale. Alexander gave young readers a vocabulary to ponder the big questions, like “what does it mean to be human rather than animal” or “when does the end justify the means in wartime”. Thank you, Mr. Alexander. I’ll miss you.

Christian Hawkey: “Night Without Thieves”

The day is going to come—it will come—put on 
   your nightgown,
put on your fur. And yea unto those who 
   go unclothed,
unshod, without fear, fingering the corners
of bright countertops

and calmly, absentmindedly, toeing the edges 
   of clouds
drifting in a puddle. Put on your deep-sea gear,
your flippers, and walk to the end
of the driveway.

It will come. Be not afraid to chase large animals.
Once, I had a conversation with the eye
of a moose, looming wetly
through the branches.

I was terrified. I froze. I backed away. 
   I imagined it.
And then on the other hand there 
   are those
truly fearless: schools of silver minnows
darting in and out

of the gills of blue whales—how many invisible 
do we sustain without knowing it? Our own,
for one. Put on your crowded body,
like Vallejo,

who pulled the sea over his shoulders in 
   the morning
and stepped firmly onto ground. Thus,
when the day came, he conducted

perfectly—unknowingly—and wrote by the red 
   light of his teeth
after a glass of dark wine. Put on your 
Put on your cage. If, in the shape of a key,
the shape of a woman,

a bank of swollen clouds surging over the 
a word basipitally descends
break it open: how pome
and granate

meet in dense honeycombs, red seeds erupting 
   inside a mouth.
And though we lose eleven eyelashes a day
by blinking alone we cannot enter
the Kingdom,

nor can we move sideways, high on this narrow 
without the proper footgear; a pebble’s kicked 
and the echo returning
from the ravine

sounds like an avalanche, and is. Put on your 
Take off your clothes. If anyone even thinks
about laughing
it will be

the end of us—Rita, hand over the kazoo. Thank 
Now hand over the other one. Good.
And in case of an emergency
realize, quickly,

there is no emergency and move on. Like a thief in 
   the night
the day came. Then night came,
and emptied out its thieves
into the furious sunlight. 

        reprinted by permission from The Book of Funnels (Wave Books, 2006)

May Hell Be Empty

Apparently some in the blogosphere have been speculating, not without glee, that the late televangelist Jerry Falwell is now in the hell to which he so quickly consigned gays, liberals, and other folks outside the Moral Majority. Cautioning today against this uncharitable behavior, Hugo Schwyzer has some reflections on hell that I wholeheartedly endorse:

Do I believe there’s a hell? Reluctantly, I do. I believe there’s a hell because Scripture and tradition says there is, and because I believe God gives us the free will to turn away from Him. But I also reserve the right to believe and pray that hell is absolutely empty. I pray that every last creature on this planet will live eternally in paradise. I pray that prayer every danged day.

Episcopal theologian Robert Farrar Capon puts it beautifully in this sermon on the Prodigal Son:

This is the wonderful thing about this parable, because it isn’t that there was a Prodigal Son who was a bad boy and who, therefore, came home and turned out to be a good boy and had a happy ending. Then the elder brother—you would think Jesus, if he was an ordinary storyteller, would have said, “Let’s give the elder brother a rotten ending.” He doesn’t. He gives the older brother no ending. The parable ends with a freeze frame. It ends like that with just the father, and the sound goes dead—the servants may be moving around with the wine and veal—but the sound goes dead and Jesus shows you only the freeze frame of the father and the elder brother. That’s the way the parable has ended for 2,000 years.

My theory about this parable is that if, for 2,000 years, he has never let it end, then you can extend that indefinitely, that this is a signal, an image of the presence of Christ to the damned. When the father goes out into the courtyard, he is an image of Christ descending into hell; and, therefore, the great message in this is the same as Psalm 139, “If I go down to hell, You are there also.” God is there with us. There is no point at which the Shepherd who followed the lost sheep will ever stop following all of the damned. He will always seek the lost. He will always raise the dead. Even if the elder brother refused forever to go in and kiss his other brother, the Father would still be there pleading with him. Christ never gives up on anybody. Christ is not the enemy of the damned. He is the finder of the damned. If they don’t want to be found, well there is no imagery of hell too strong like fire and brimstone and all that for that kind of stupidity. But nonetheless, the point is that you can never get away from the love that will not let you go and the elder brother standing there in the courtyard in his own hell is never going to get away from the Jesus who seeks him and wills to raise him from the dead.

Theory: Love It or Hate It?

Two of my greatest passions in life are creative writing and Christian faith, and I’ve been wondering what it means that I approach them in very different ways with respect to the role of the theoretical intellect. In fact, the first sentence of this post was originally “…creative writing and theology,” which I changed to “…and Christianity,” and finally to a more active and experiential phrase that is more of a goal than an honest description of my spiritual life. As a writer, I flee from literary theory like a helicopter escaping a war zone. As a Christian, I spend much of my time insisting on the importance of clear thinking about theology, and trying to provide a foundation for the same.

Does this discrepancy reflect a natural difference in subject matter, or is it a sign that my religious life doesn’t go deep enough, compared to my enjoyment of my own imagination? Is this related to the fact that I talk to my novel characters when I should be praying? Sometimes I feel like I’ll never be done hunting for idolatry in the corners of my mind, hidden under things that always seemed admirable before. It’s like my bedroom ceiling during ladybug mating season. Eventually I have to put down the Bugzooka (the Buddhist answer to flyswatters) and go to sleep, knowing that I may be sharing a pillow with a few spotty little friends.

So, some thoughts. What they add up to, I hope my loyal readers will tell me.

Theory & writing: I get so discouraged when poets launch into jeremiads against literary movements that differ from their own preferred style. The world will not end because someone is writing free verse or using less than 17 syllables in a haiku. Poets whose writing explores problems at the boundaries of language despise poets whose work could be understood if you read it aloud on the bus, and vice versa. Poetry may be at special risk for this phenomenon because it’s already more meta-textual than fiction, more concerned with its own workings; also because the crumbs of academic security and public acclaim are so much smaller that the pigeons squabble over them more fiercely. Intolerance is never pretty, but the “One True Religion” attitude seems particularly absurd in creative writing, which is by definition personal, original and idiosyncratic.

I write to find out things I don’t already know that I know. Anne Lamott’s excellent book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life compares writing a novel to taking dictation from the little boy who’s playing in the basement of your subconscious. At least for the first drafts, you just listen in while he’s doing his thing; you don’t give him an outline of the themes his make-believe is supposed to embody. Theory would get in the way. By the same token, I’ve come to believe that I shouldn’t set out to write an “innovative” or “experimental” poem. Innovation, if it happens at all, arises naturally out of the need for a new form to express a new thought, and often isn’t crowned as a breakthrough till years later.

I love Bird by Bird mainly because it validates the novel-writing process I’ve discovered for myself as the most comfortable and productive one: namely, having absolutely no idea what I’m doing, but complete confidence in it anyhow. Other books by equally good writers would give the opposite advice. I don’t care. All I need to know is that someone did it my way and didn’t die. I have no need to insist that all writers go through my particular dharma door.

Theory & faith: In my religious life, what came first was my childhood sense of wonder and my passionate longing for something that lay just beyond the horizon of human perception. In that respect, it’s not unlike the leap of faith I take as a writer. The ineffable draws me onward. Only the desire implanted unshakeably in my heart tells me that my journey will lead somewhere worthwhile. The absence meanwhile is a bittersweet pleasure, a spur to forward motion, a space in which to embrace my role as lover and seeker.

One of the beauties in which I see God’s presence is the beauty of theology. Long before I found Christianity convincing, I fell in love with its harmonious intricacy, its ability to address life’s most important questions within a system that was satisfyingly complex yet coherent. Perhaps I don’t see the same beauty in a lot of literary theory because the latter is about second-order questions. Theology is not God, and isn’t always prayer, but it goes right up to the limits of the sayable. It knows where the action is. Literary theory is words about words, theology is words about Reality.

There’s also an anti-intellectualism in today’s religious climate that’s mercifully absent from how we think and talk about literature. Few people expect to become good writers without studying the thoughts and methods of one’s predecessors, and learning how to think critically about one’s preconceived notions. If the same level of intellectual seriousness was expected in our religious life, I wouldn’t need to spend so much time defending the very idea of the Nicene Creed, not to mention its content.

Writers are expected to master their shame and fear in order to learn from tradition. Though the diversity of acceptable techniques increases at the more advanced levels of the craft, there’s wide agreement on some basic standards that quality writing should follow. There are respected authorities in the field. A beginning writer who rejects the notion of authority, who feels invalidated by the suggestion that anybody has something to teach her, would be advised to get her ego under control.

The church, by contrast, too often coddles that kind of immature personality, either from a loss of belief that there are any standards for Christian faith, or from fear that doctrinal specificity will lead to fatal dissension. The stakes are higher, it’s true. The Thirty Years’ War wasn’t waged by rival MFA programs. Still, I think the liberal churches in particular could learn something from the self-discipline and detachment that their members expect from themselves when they’re wearing their “academic” hat instead of their “Christian” hat.

I care more about unity in theology than in literary theory because for me, religion is about describing our shared reality, while writing creates a multiplicity of alternate realities that reflect different small pieces of the human condition. Also, the church as community needs something loftier than the roof-repair fundraiser to unite around, while the writer’s work is solitary.

At a time when fewer and fewer Christians can articulate why the Trinity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection make a difference in how God’s forgiving love transforms our lives, it’s hard for me to get past the task of rebuilding an intellectual foundation for belief. I need this foundation to create the community that will safely support me on my scary walk toward God.

Imagine being a writer in a society where good books and bad ones were given equal and superficial respect, and reading too much of either type was suspect; where English teachers and literary critics were routinely mocked, in pop culture and within schools themselves, as crushing the natural beauty of creative souls with their arbitrary rules of grammar and exposition. Writers shouldn’t have to be that lonely; Christians, even less so.

Out in Scripture: Revelation 21

The Human Rights Campaign publishes an e-newsletter called “Out in Scripture” that applies the weekly lectionary reading to themes of interest to the GLBT community. This week’s commentary on Revelation 21:22-27 appealed to me:

[This passage] is a word of hope for God’s ultimate and eternal blessings to those who have been faithful in spite of being excluded, oppressed or even exiled. However, that initial exclusion can be problematic to many readers. Revelation 21:27 says that “anyone who practices abomination or falsehood” (New Revised Standard Version) or “does what is shameful or deceitful” (New International Version) will not enter the city. Most members of the LGBT community know the pain of having the words “abomination” and “shame” as labels placed on them and their lives. LGBT people should not internalize these words as a particular condemnation of them. All of humanity is subject to the shame of idolatry. It is not sexual orientation or gender identity that creates an “abomination” but our raising those things of the created order to the level of “gods” in our lives.

God calls us to be good stewards of all the gifts and blessings given to us, including human sexuality. When we make idols of money, power, institutions, relationships and, yes, even our sexuality, then we are in danger of not entering the city of light — simply because we’d rather stay in the shadows.

Jesus Blah Blah Blah

I’m a good theologian. I believe nearly everything I say, and can talk myself into the rest. And yet sometimes it all seems rather ridiculous. To talk about God? Shouldn’t I just be sitting here with my mouth hanging open in awe…”buh-buh-buh”?

At the Wheaton conference on the church fathers, keynote speaker Christopher Hall cited St. Gregory of Nazianzus‘ admonition that you shouldn’t do theology unless you have a pure heart and meditate often. Otherwise it becomes a competitive sport, or an arrogant attempt to penetrate all of God’s mysteries through human reasoning. Unless one simultaneously engages in perceptual and behavioral habit-formation within a church community, it’s best not to bloviate about the Almighty.

So I won’t.

William “Wild Bill” Taylor: “Time Served”

the face of the broken man appears to one man 
   with the loud
mouth and shaking godspeed

in the crack houses where the lost and found
are gathered in the speakeasy future

of dying dung wounds
and the alabaster holding tank screams

you have warrants out sinner
credit for time served?

the pregnant mother whose back is covered
in a black tattoo haze of the Mexican 

no insurance suspected driver’s license
INS has a hold on you

Christ is processed through
he needs to see the nurse

his chest x-ray is negative for TB
but his wide MIA sternum shows a broken

unseen tears for those soon to be booked
checking out with duplicate fingerprints

he gave me his baloney sandwich
and I knew my that my warrants had been 

this time…